by Rene Allen
A few years ago, I took a short story class at Pima Community College and then I took it again. Since I was working on a memoir, the fit was skewed in favor of fiction writing, but knowing how to tell a good story doesn’t hurt a memoir writer. The memoir stalled out, however, as I took on the challenge of the short story.
Now, understand, I was a fiction newbie. My first story had an appalling problem with point of view. It bounced around like a Globetrotter basketball and I even gave the dead a voice. (A “dead” point of view is always a problem. But Alice Sebold wrote an entire book in the voice of a dead person, The Lovely Bones, and made it look easy.) In fact, at that time, point of view was a new idea to me, one I can guarantee got not one nod during four years of medical school and a bunch of post-graduate work, though I did learn that generally, the dead don’t talk.
There were a few other deficiencies. Start with structure. The instructor said structure and I thought skeleton – Ezekiel’s head bone and back bone and thigh bone. I thought molecular compounds and ionic bonds – NaCl, MgSO4. . . “No, no, no,” said the teacher, quickly echoed by half the class. “Beginning, middle and end, the dénouement, the climax and sweetly short resolution.”
And then there were the rules. “You have to grab the reader with your first paragraph. Make it vivid. Make it mysterious. Jump in and pull the reader with you.” Here’s another I particularly liked, “The ending has to be strong enough to stop the story.” That one came from fellow student. Also important was to create a character about whom the reader would care so much he or she would finish the story. I had a problem with this one since I had a problem finding sympathetic characters in contemporary short stories from which to learn.
My idea of a good short story was “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet. Poor old Jabez Stone! Who wouldn’t want a better life?
All of this brings me to an observation. It’s been almost a decade since I took the short story class twice and though I received A’s, I found the classes frustrating because there was more emphasis on technique than content. The heart of a story is what it’s about. The heart of any writing is what the writing is about.
Here I raise that old hoary question, the one about writers’ license to write about anything. Does everything have to be uplifting? Must it always be about characters who have character?
I have found that for myself, I prefer stories with moral endings and strong, Atticus Finch-like characters. I like to feel informed when I read and that I can trust the writer to be factual and accurate.
As I read contemporary literature including short stories, I yearn for that memorable, eccentric, unique character who stands out because he is so well written, and of equally fascinating human nature. A goal I have is to be a good writer – to turn a phrase and leave an indelible image, to say what I want to say tersely but eloquently. But I also want content, I want what I write to say something and influence others. There is power in the written word. Think of your own experiences as a child, your escape and adventure in reading.
I can tell when I am writing for technique more than content because my writing becomes superficial. I am unhappy with it. Whenever that happens, I remind myself to get involved. “This isn’t about you, kid,” I tell myself. “Get involved. What is the human part of this story?”
It’s been a few years since my last writing class. Frankly, I don’t know if my writing has improved, but I appreciated learning the terminology of writing and what constitutes good writing. But given my druthers, I’d pick the story with meat in it any day.